Belief in an all-seeing punitive god motivates people to be more charitable towards strangers outside their own family and community, particularly to those of similar beliefs, researchers have found.
A study, published Wednesday in Nature, suggests religiosity may contribute to greater cooperation and collaboration despite geographic separation.
"People may trust in, cooperate with and interact fairly within wider social circles, partly because they believe that knowing gods will punish them if they do not," the study's authors wrote.
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"Moreover, the social radius within which people are willing to engage in behaviors that benefit others at a cost to themselves may enlarge as gods' powers to monitor and punish increase."
To explore these ideas, researchers studied 591 people from eight diverse communities in Brazil, Mauritius, Siberia, Tanzania, Fiji and Vanuatu.
People in these communities adhere to a wide array of religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism as well as local traditions such as animism and ancestor worship.
The participants played a game in which they were given the option to exercise financial favoritism towards themselves and their local community, or to be completely impartial by obeying the roll of a die, which could mean giving money to a distant person of the same religion.
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Each participant's religious beliefs were also explored through interviews designed to assess how much their god or gods cared about morality, punishment, and how much those knowledge the gods had of individual's behavior.
The researchers found people who believed in a more punitive, all-knowing god ended up giving more money to distant people who shared the same religious belief.
Lead author Benjamin Purzycki said the results suggested people of the belief that one's actions are monitored, judged and punished by a deity were more likely to play fair than to play favorites.
"Ultimately we've all got very similar constitutions; we behave a certain way when we feel like we're being watched and if there's a threat of a punisher around, that alters our behavior," said Purzycki, post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture at the University of British Columbia.
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"So what these gods seem to do is they harness that suite of psychological predispositions we have and it can steer our sociality and pro-sociality in specific ways."
Purzycki said the stronger motivation provided by the threat of punishment rather than reward reflected human nature; when driven by reward, people are more likely to do dishonest things than when driven by the threat of punishment.
This can even overcome our evolutionary drive to look after our own – although the study did show that the more children people had, the more likely they were to play favorites.
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"We found exactly what you would expect from a rational being where the more children people had the more likely they were to favor themselves and their local community at the expense of these geographically distant communities who shared the same religion beliefs and practices," Purzycki said.
Given we live in an unprecedented global culture, the authors suggested religiosity may have helped to expand cooperation, trust and fairness towards far-flung strangers of similar religious persuasions.
"In addition to some forms of religious rituals and non-religious norms and institutions, such as courts, markets and police, the present results point to the role that commitment to knowledgeable, moralistic and punitive gods plays in solidifying the social bonds that create broader imagined communities," they wrote.
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In an accompanying commentary, Dominic D P Johnson from the University of Oxford pointed out the study did not explore whether the influence of an all-seeing powerful punisher on fairness would extend to individuals from different or no religious persuasion.
However, he said, the results offered "the most explicit evidence yet that belief in supernatural punishment has been instrumental in boosting cooperation in human societies."
This originally appeared on ABC Science Online.